Sunday, December 05, 2010

Parliamentary parties, structural deficiencies and big money in politics

Jack Balkin has a thoughtful and thought-provoking discussion about the Constitutional separation of power in Parliamentary Parties in a Presidential System Balkinization 11/30/2010. Summarized very briefly, he argues that disciplined political parties that vote as a block make our non-parliamentary governmental system dysfunctional, which allows the Chief Executive to be a member of a different party than that of the Congressional majority.

Digby comments on his post in Parliamentary Mismatch Hullabaloo 12/01/2010. John Amato picks up the discussion in Parliamentary practices have destroyed American Politics C&L 12/03/2010.

Balkin's post is challenging because it looks at a longer-term issue - the Constitutional separation of powers that could only be changed by a Constitutional amendment - and at its implications for the next two years. I want to highlight one of his points up front, with which I very much agree:

... one important step would be to change the rules of the Senate and reform the system of filibusters and holds. Senate reform would mean that important legislation would require only a simple majority of both houses to be sent to the President, and executive branch appointments could be filled with only a simple majority of the Senate.
It would be hard to argue that our system presents challenges that parliamentary systems do not. Including the one he highlights, the fact that the Presidency can be held by a different party than holds the Congress. (And the Judiciary for that matter.) And while the Founders weren't assuming the presence of political parties in the sense we know them today, their guiding vision included the assumption that separation of powers recommended was vital to preserving freedom and preventing tyranny. Put a different way, they intended for the federal government's basic structures to be clunky. Part of the structural problem Balkin is addressing is due to the American use of winner-take-all electoral districts, which have tended in practice to lock in a two-party system, which can exist in parliamentary systems, as well.

But parliamentary systems have their own disadvantages. One present-day cautionary example is Israel, a democratic country with a parliamentary system and many parties. Whether Labor, Likud or Kadima wins a plurality, they typically have to include small, religion-based parties to put together a governing coalition. That has made it difficult in practice for any government to pursue peace negotiations, because the defection of one of the small parties can bring down the government. In another example, though not a typical one, the parliamentary system that emerged from our nation-building in Iraq has been trying for months to form a new government after their last national election.

Balkin argues that by becoming ideologically polarized, the Democrats and Republicans are now functioning largely as "parliamentary parties". And he sees that as unworkable:

The American system has long presumed that in periods of divided government, the President will be able to create coalitions with members of both parties in order to pass legislation. This is possible in part because, at least since the Civil War, and until very recently, American political parties have been agglomerations of heterogenous interests, and relatively ideologically diverse. (During the New Deal, for example, northern liberals, Catholics, and blacks coexisted in the same Democratic party as Southern whites). ... Parliamentary parties in most countries, by contrast, tend to be more ideologically coherent and centrally controlled. ...

But parliamentary parties are not well designed for the particular forms of give and take that are generally required in a presidential system. In a presidential system, members of different parties are expected to regularly cross party lines to form coalitions on particular questions (rather than on the formation of a government as a whole). Ideologically coherent and politically polarized parties do not perform these functions particularly well. Indeed, the most recent example of the rise of parliamentary parties in the United States is the party system shortly before the Civil War, in which political compromise increasingly became impossible.
He thinks that the Democratic minority in the new House will be as obstructionist as the Republican minority has been in the outgoing one. And that "is a disaster in the making for the political system in which we live".

I have reservations about his analysis. As he points out, we have had "parliamentary parties", i.e., parties able to enforce consistent discipline on voting in Congress on major issues, in the living memory of anyone alive today, except in recent years, according to Balkin's analysis. And since that's the case, we can't really say based on American experience that disciplined parties are unworkable in this system.

Another reservation is one he articulates in his post: the Republicans are far more disciplined than the Democrats. "Perhaps ironically, given their anti-European rhetoric, the Republicans behave more like a European-style parliamentary party than the Democrats, who still retain more moderates in the House and Senate."

A third reservation is his argument that "there is no reason to think that the Democrats will not eventually adopt many of the same tactics that the Republicans have perfected if, once again, they find themselves out of power." I'd have to say that this flies in the face of much of what we've seen these past two years. I can't improve on Digby's comment on this point. Her "Tip and Ronnie" reference is to the story, one of the favorite anecdotes of our Pod Pundits, that House Democratic Leader Tip O'Neill and President Ronald Reagan used to have huge political fights in public during the day and get together in the evening and have a beer together:

I actually think there is every reason to believe the Democrats will not adopt many of the tactics Republicans have perfected because they are just not temperamentally equipped to do it. I think they will continue to pretend, as the media still does, that the beautiful world of Tip and Ronnie will return if only these awful people would just stop making their congressmen and Senators do things they don't want to do until they are pushed hard by the people to change their ways. At this point they do not have a whole lot to lose by losing --- the revolving door takes very good care of them if they promise not to make too many waves, which is exactly what they hate.
She gets at something Balkin's post ignores, which is that there are good reasons we have different political parties. Thomas Jefferson, the first leader of what evolved into today's Democratic Party, thought it was a matter of deep-rooted human inclinations, in which some people are eager to adapt to the future and "embrace change" (to use a current favorite management buzz-phrase) while others are just stodgy conservatives. Okay, he put it more eloquently than that, but you get the point.

James Madison had a more materialistic explanation in the famous Federalist #10:

The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts. But the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views. The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation, and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of the government. [my emphasis]
Glenn Beck would likely take this as evidence that Madison was a Marxist, but this was written before Karl Marx had even been born, decades before actually, and the word "socialism" hadn't even been invented yet.

The paralyzing debility in our system today is the dominance of money, particularly in campaigns. This problem Balkin essentially dismisses with a resigned sigh: "The system of campaign finance that helps parties control their members seems well entrenched."

But it would be easier to change the campaign finance system than to institute a parliamentary system in the US. And, in any case, recent American experience gives very good reason for thinking - I would say dead certain - that the wide-open, deeply-corrupt approach we have to campaign financing that the Roberts Supreme Court made even worse this year with the Citizens United decision would corrupt a parliamentary system just as it has corrupted our current system. It is that more than what Balkin calls the Presidential system of government that is making our national government "pathological and unsustainable in the long run" and producing "bad and ineffective government that will harm the national interest" and creating "persistent forms of political pathology", to use his description of the problem.

Another key point is one raised by John Kenneth Galbraith in The Culture of Contentment (1992), and one I hope to discuss here in more detail soon. The dynamics of our politics means that that the more affluent voters tend to have a favorable view of government not being able to respond to problems promptly. If you live a gated community with its own security force, to take one example, you don't necessarily care if the federal, state and local governments take action to prevent layoff of public safety personnel. Why should you pay taxes for services that benefit someone else anyway? On a more macro issue, if the weather generally seems tolerable to you, you may just as soon see the government delay action on global climate change indefinitely because, hey, what do you care if some Third World coastal city gets flooded out of existence 50 years from now?

The delay of federal action that results from the institutional dysfunctions that Balkin identifies, in other words, itself often serves perceived class interests. Taking the urgently needed steps now on global climate change might mean that the Koch oil billionaires might have to shell out more money for pollution-control equipment, or won't get to profit from deepwater oil drilling as much as they might want to. A lot of dysfunction in the federal government isn't simply an unfortunate by-product of political developments. To a major extent, it's a conscious goal of the powerful and well-funded Republican Party.

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